John Zmirak received his B.A. from Yale University in 1986, then his M.F.A. in screenwriting and fiction and his Ph.D. in English in 1996 from Louisiana State University. He has taught at Catholic and secular colleges, including Tulane University. He has contributed to American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia and The Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought. He has served as Senior Editor of Faith & Family Magazine and a reporter at The National Catholic Register. His new book, The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism, is now available. Check his new blogs and archived columns at The Bad Catholic’s Bingo Hall.
I’ve been stunned to see how trivial the religious freedom issue has proved in the campaign, and how few Catholics realize the lethal stakes for which we’re playing. Have there been TV ads about this that I’ve missed? Why wasn’t this subject raised in the debates?
Probably because even the candidates who favor our point of view know it's not a winning issue. It matters to a select group of people (like you and me) but it will not move the needle on Election Day. Huge “swing” states full of Catholics will not be swayed by a major persecution of the Church being enacted by the government.
Let me point out in stark relief what will come if the Obama administration is re-elected, and allowed to enforce the HHS mandate:
- Catholic institutions will have to pay for their employees’ birth control or cease to offer health insurance. This means that thousands of such enterprises (colleges, schools, publishers, broadcasters) will likely have to close.
- Medical institutions will suffer the worst. Catholic hospitals will be taken over by secular corporations or the government. They will then perform abortions, sterilizations, and sex change operations—and weigh the cost of treating patients against their “quality of life.”
- Dying Catholics in those hospitals will have less ready access to priests. So many will be deprived of the last sacraments.
- Prolife nurses will have fewer places where they can work—and the “conscience” clause that protects women like my sister from assisting at such procedures will surely be next on the ever-expanding agenda of an intolerant, growing government.
- Prolife doctors will have fewer hospitals where they can serve as residents—imperiling their careers if they refuse to take part in abortions.
If the Feds get away with this, hundreds of subsequent dominos will fall—too many to mention. We will soon end up like Catholics in England, whose Catholic adoption agencies had to shut down for flouting mandated gay adoption. How long will it be till churches of any kind that refuse to hold gay “weddings” are sued and regulated into compliance? (That’s starting to happen in the U.K.) Or until schools that defend traditional marriage are labeled “hate academies” and deprived first of their tax exemptions, and then of their accreditation?
A political scientist might wonder how such persecution can be aimed at the largest Christian church in the country, the putative faith of one-fourth of the population. Part of the answer is obvious: In resisting the HHS contraception mandate, the Church is seen as defending a natural law teaching that most Catholics reject. (Many of those who do accept Humanae Vitae don’t even follow the arguments, but take the teaching on authority—which doesn’t exactly prepare you to persuade those outside the Faith.)
This sad fact should not stop us from rallying other Catholics. Even liberal Protestants who largely diverge from the Bible might get upset if the government tried to confiscate every copy, and burned great piles of bibles on the National Mall. Dissenting Catholics should also be furious that the state is persecuting their Church.
Because ultimately this really isn’t a battle over birth control, natural law or even religion, it’s about what America means: At heart of our Constitutional democracy is the freedom of individuals, even those with unpopular opinions, to pursue the good as they choose—and their right to form groups outside the government and push back against its policies. That’s why we have Amish communities, Catholic schools, associations of kosher butchers, hippie home-schools, gun clubs, organic farms… and all the other free institutions that build up our “ordered liberty.” Take all that away, quash every organization that displeases the federal government, and what you have is a country full of naked individuals, shivering in every wind that blows from Washington, D.C.
We must make other Americans feel the chilling effect an Obama victory would have on their own freedom. Sometime before Election Day, I beg each one of you to say something like this to some neighbor who doesn’t care a fig about contraception:
“Should any institution, anywhere in society, be allowed to resist public opinion? Or should the federal government step in and make it conform? Do you want to live in a free, diverse America, or one where the state co-opts and crushes civil society, and steam-rollers over the consciences of minorities? Is there some issue—any issue—where you disagree with the federal government, the NY Times, or NPR? Well if the Feds get away with doing this, you can kiss your rights goodbye. You’re next, my friend.”